5 min read.Updated: 03 Nov 2019, 09:20 AM ISTNeeta Lal
Grilled meats falling off the bone, fresh crunchy salads and oven-warm breads constitute the quintessentially Azeri diet
Located in the erstwhile silk route, its cuisine has inflections from Turkey, Russia and Georgia
The aroma of freshly baked bread wafts towards me as I prowl the cobblestoned streets of Icheri Sheher. The pristinely restored Unesco-listed Persian Old Town in Azerbaijan’s capital Baku mimics a vintage painting with honeyed-sandstone hammams, caravanserais, kilim (rug) shops and quaint restaurants.
Bakeries helmed by kerchief-wearing, ruddy-cheeked ladies churn out bread in clay ovens called tandirs. It is riveting food theatre. I stop to take photographs of baker Shahida, who seems to have aced the art of multitasking. She’s rolling out the dough, bending to place the bread inside the hot oven, releasing air from a small hole called kuvle to regulate the oven’s temperature and splashing water on its walls to release steam. All at the same time.
Amused at my interest in her craft, Shahida offers me a slice of the tandir bread she has just finished baking. Stuffed with milk cheese and parsley, it makes my palate sing. She explains that breads are an integral part of an Azeri meal, “symbolizing abundance and blessings in our country".
Over the next four days in Baku, I learn that bread is considered sacred in Azerbaijan, never to be wasted —and if found on the ground, it is kissed and placed on a higher surface, off the ground and away from dirt.
I also discover the myriad exotic avatars of Azeri bread. Thin flatbread called yukha; the sweet Persian fatir; kutab bursting with the goodness of pumpkin, cheese, spinach, offal, herbs or even camel meat; the rustic kata; and, of course, the popular tandir that mimics the Indian tandoori roti.
At Expo Café, opposite Baku’s posh marina, I sample lavash, a celebrated flatbread so thin as to be almost transparent. So prized is this bread that its making was inscribed in the Unesco Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2016.
Soft and pliant, it pairs well with my steamy platter of sumac-infused lyula (lamb) kebabs. Legend has it that author Alexandre Dumas was so enamoured of these kebabs that he recommended they be included on the menu of French restaurants.
I wrap the lavash around the kebabs, stuff soft, briny cheeses and pickled peppers into it and top it all off with a thick creamy curd called qatiq. It’s a delicious mess and I relish it sans cutlery. Lavash was my napkin, plate, spoon and serving bowl, all rolled into one.
However, it is the plov that wins my heart—along-grained rice dish bejewelled with dried fruits, nuts, barberries and lamb so flavourful that it didn’t need salt.
“In Azerbaijan we have over 200 types of plovs," the chef at Expo Café proclaims. “I can cook about 50." I wash it all down with a red, semi-sweet Azerbaijani wine called Seven Beauties. “It is our most popular wine and its grapes are grown in the Ismayilli district in north-eastern Azerbaijan," the waiter explains.
Not for nothing did travellers of yore compare Azeri cuisine with the “music of aroma and the poetry of flavour". With a rich history going back to the Roman empire in the fourth century, Baku’s dining scene is eclectic and exciting. The city’s location on a key Silk Road route led to cross-cultural intermingling, resulting in a cuisine that has inflections from Turkey, Russia, Georgia and Turkmenistan. Grilled meat falling off the bone, fresh crunchy salads, salty cheeses, creamy yogurts and oven-warm breads constitute the quintessentially Azeri diet.
From Azerbaijan’s array of non-alcoholic beverages, the most habit-forming drink is the compote or sherbet. Prepared from pomegranate, apricot, quince and orange as well as rose petals, basil, mint and saffron, it is usually made in bulk at home and stored to be enjoyed throughout the year.
Geography, too, plays a pivotal role in making the country’s produce diverse and distinctive. Also called “the land of fire", Azerbaijan is fringed by mountains on three sides and by the Caspian Sea on the fourth. The sea and the spectrum of terrain have created nine of Earth’s 11 climate zones here.
In a bid to preserve the country’s syncretic culinary heritage, some of Baku’s eateries are located in caravanserais. These are erstwhile roadside inns where Silk Road travellers and traders would rest and recover from the day’s journey, drinking chai and feasting on local delicacies.
I dine at one such 16th century establishment near the Maiden Tower, a 12th century heritage building overlooking the Caspian. Accoutred with kilims, chunky wooden furniture and period bric-à-brac, it is split into two parts—a tea house and a restaurant. We sit in one of the cavernous rooms set around a courtyard graced by an Oriental carpet on the wall. Service is brisk.
We begin with dolma (grape leaves stuffed with minced lamb) followed by Borani pilaf lush with pumpkin cubes and paired with smoked kutum, a Caspian whitefish.
It is heart-warming to note that most of Baku’s eateries take pride in serving authentic local cuisine. Sumakh, a restaurant in downtown Baku, is one such immersive experience. Think carpets, clay lampshades, liveried waiters and dishes and drinks presented in quaint utensils and pear-shaped armudu glasses.
The food is superb: Baked vegetables saturated with the smell of coals, barbecued meats dripping golden juices, melt-in-the-mouth kebabs and creamy cheeses.
Herbs, I learn, are as essential to the Azeri table as seasoning. There’s kever (garlic chives) for chopping into dovga, a refreshing cold yogurt soup, and cilantro for a green lamb stew called sabzi govurma. Saffron, cumin, sumac, cardamom, as well as mint, dill, parsley, celery and basil, find prolific use in dishes.
“Azerbaijan is also one of the oldest centres of saffron in the world, with the herb’s production going back to over a thousand years," Sumakh’s chef explains. “Popular dishes like plov, bozbash (meat stew) and piti (lamb curry) must contain saffron. As also halva and pakhlava (baklava)."
As much as the Azeris love their wines and compote, they are also great tea drinkers. I visit one of Baku’s famous çay khanas, or tea houses, which have elevated tea drinking to an art form.
The tea arrives in an armudu, a strong brew along with sweet pastries—pakhlava and shekerbura, or tiny flour crescents brimming with pastes of almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts. There’s also a selection of soft-set preserves in flavours of mulberry, rose petal, walnut, apricot and cherries.
I am supposed to put a spoonful of jam into my mouth and then sip the aromatic tea till the hot liquid melts the jam, producing a delightful sensation in my mouth.
Azerbaijanis love to say “çay nedir, say nedir" when they serve you tea. Meaning “when drinking tea, don’t count the cups". Good advice that.
Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based editor and journalist who writes on food, travel, arts and culture.